Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Woody Allen In a Soulless Mood

Woody Allen's always been my favorite director. There's also no other director who has made as many movies as he has, forty-four by my count, that I've enjoyed watching each and every one and happily will rewatch again and again.

I've always had a thing for Woody Allen's R-rated movies. In the seventies the only R-rated movies he made were Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex *But Were Afraid to Ask (1972, Woody Allen) and Manhattan (1979, Allen). Of the ten films Allen made in the Eighties, none were rated R.

Call it personal preference, but the Nineties have always been my favorite decade of Woody Allen movies. The R-rated Husbands and Wives (1992, Allen) with its Scenes from a Marriage (1973, Ingmar Bergman) appropriated domestic mockumentary basis combining the on-screen ugly divorce of Woody and Mia Farrow's characters with the real life split and scandals that were occurring off-screen shows Allen finding new depths of dark character studies.

And I've always had an affinity for his Miramax phase:
  • Bullets Over Broadway (1994, Allen)
  • Mighty Aphrodite (1995, Allen)
  • Everyone Says I Love You (1996, Allen)
  • Celebrity (1999, Allen)
These Allen Miramax films are still atop my list of greatest American movies of the Nineties, and all rated-R, as was the Fine Line released Deconstructing Harry (1997, Allen). All of these films have an edge that was sharper than anything before, except for maybe Stardust Memories (1980, Allen) PG or Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989, Allen) PG-13; and sharper than anything that would follow, except for Blue Jasmine (2013, Allen) PG-13, which is right up there.

Irrational Man (2015, Allen) finds Allen returning to the Crime and Punishment ethical dilemma he began exploring with Crimes and Misdemeanors as JUDAH (Martin Landau) has to bear the yoke of murder while getting away with the perfect crime. Match Point (2005, Allen) shows him returning to a narrative dealing with its central protagonist attempting to get away with murder yet again, but this time also closely resembling the plot of Dreiser's An American Tragedy. Then two years after Match Point, Cassandra's Dream (2007, Allen) is another variation of that theme, but this time the crime gets punished.

Joaquin Phoenix plays the lead, as a nihilist, depressed, alcoholic, suicidal author and philosophy professor whose reputation precedes him as we find him transferring to teach at a small New England college where Emma Stone plays one of his students. He downs single-malt scotch to numb his ennui and fixates on the meaningless of life until he plots the murder of a judge, whom he has never met or is at all affected by and which reinvigorates him and is the answer to all of his problems. And unlike Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point, or Cassandra's Dream, Irrational Man is a straight comedy, whereas the previous films were heavy moral dramas. Irrational Man is fresh for this reason.

Along with Phoenix and the plucky cute naive stock-Allen female role brought to life by Stone, Parker Posey brings an enjoyable on-screen presence and makes up for Stone's character with everything she is not. Posey is the dark, cynical, detached bitch you love to see her play and no one does it better.

There's a hilariously dark scene where Phoenix's professor goes to a college party and starts up a game of Russian roulette that put its stake firmly into the gallows humor terrain the film has sought out. And Irrational Man, with its R-rating, provides Allen's dark wit as I'd hoped. Additionally, the character of Stone's boyfriend getting shunted for the Phoenix professor is delightful because he's such a WASPy pussy anyhow.

Having become familiar with these types of characters from Allen along with this type of plot, it was fun. But by the time the film wraps up, the twist feels pat and deflates the otherwise potentially fatal comedy it felt like Irrational Man had been ascending towards. Although this is Woody Allen, and the ending fits perfectly with his consummate commitment to irony--that's alway been his charm and one of the defining characteristics of his narratives.

In the Teens Blue Jasmine was a reason to rejoice, decade before that we got Match Point, so that's something. But amongst the annual Woody Allen movie, it's becoming exceedingly rare to see him returning to his master form. Yet that's not to say I'll ever lose interest in him, for his genius is comparable to no other. Irrational Man works as a dark comedy, and that's what Allen does best. Also, "The 'In' Crowd," by the Ramsey Lewis Trio began to get grating after its repetition. I just kept getting annoyed and wondering how many times are they gonna play this? I mean it's kind of cool, but sheesh.


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